What Is It

The dried root of this perennial herb has long been used to soothe inflamed or infected mucous membranes. Today, it is appreciated for its ability to help the body fight infection. The plant was first called goldenseal in the nineteenth century, deriving its name from the rich yellow of the root and the small cuplike scars found there. These scars, which appear on the previous year’s root growth, resemble the wax seals formerly used to close envelopes, hence the name “goldenseal”. Related to the buttercup, goldenseal is native to North America and once grew wild from Vermont to Arkansas. As interest in its medicinal properties grew, however, the plant was extensively harvested. Currently, most of the goldenseal on the market is commercially cultivated in Oregon and Washington.

The key medicinal compounds in goldenseal are the alkaloids berberine and hydrastine. Berberine is also responsible for the root’s rich yellow color (so vibrant), in fact, that Native Americans and early settlers utilized goldenseal as a dye as well as a medicinal herb. Because the alkaloids have a bitter taste, goldenseal tea often includes other herbs or is mixed with a sweetener such as honey.

What Does It Do

The primary benefit of goldenseal is its overall effect on immunity. Not only does it increase the immune system’s production of germ-fighting compounds, it can combat both bacteria and viruses directly.

Common Uses

  • Promotes healing of canker sores and cold sores.
  • Helps destroy the virus that causes warts.
  • Bolsters the immune system.
  • Calms a nauseated stomach.
  • May help urinary tract infections.
  • Treats eye infections.


Taking goldenseal at the first sign of a cold or the flu may prevent the illness from developing fully, or at least greatly minimize the symptoms by enhancing the activity of virus-fighting white blood cells.

Additional Benefits

Goldenseal fights bacteria, making it useful for mild urinary tract infections (if you begin taking it early enough) and sinus infections. It may also help soothe nausea and vomiting, by stimulating digestive secretions and working to destroy the bacteria that may be causing the symptoms.

As one of several herbs that stimulate the immune system (others included echinacea, pau d’arco, and astragalus) goldenseal may play a role in relieving the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome, a disabling disorder that may be partially caused by a weakened immune system. It also helps to fight cold sores and shingles (both caused by the herpes virus). Use it for no more than a week or two at a time.

Applied topically, goldenseal tincture is beneficial for canker sores and warts. The tincture promotes the healing of the sores and directly fights the human papilloma virus that causes warts. Once cooled and strained, goldenseal tea can be used as an eyewash to relieve eye infections such as conjunctivitis. Be sure to prepare a fresh batch daily and store it in a sterile container, so the tea won’t get contaminated.

How To Take It


For colds, flu, and other respiratory infections: As soon as you begin to feel sick, take 125 mg of goldenseal (in combination with 200 mg of echinacea) five times a day for five days. For urinary tract infections: Drink several cups of goldenseal tea a day. For nausea and vomiting: Take 125 mg every four hours as needed. For chronic fatigue syndrome: Use 125 mg twice a day in rotation with other immune-stimulating herbs. For cold sores: Take 125 mg of goldenseal with 200 mg echinacea four times a day. For shingles: Take 125 mg of goldenseal with 200 mg echinacea four times a day. For canker sores and warts: Apply goldenseal tincture directly to the sores three times a day. For eye infections: Use 1 teaspoon dried herb per pint of hot water. Steep, finely strain, cool, and apply as an eyewash three times a day; make a new solution every day.

Guidelines For Use:

Take goldenseal supplements with meals. Unlike echinacea and other herbs that stimulate the immune system, goldenseal should be used only when you feel that you’re coming down with a cold, the flue, or some other illness, and just for the duration of the illness. The single exception is when you’re taking goldenseal in rotation with other herbs to strengthen the immune system.

Possible Side Effects

When taken at recommended doses and for suggested lengths of time, goldenseal is safe to use and has few side effects. Very high doses may irritate the mucous membranes of the mouth and cause diarrhea, nausea, and respiratory problems.


Goldenseal should not be used by pregnant women or people with heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, or glaucoma.

Shopping Hints

When buying goldenseal, look for extracts standardized to contain 8% to 100/o alkaloids or 5% hydrastine.

Case History

Alexa K. always reacted badly to antibiotics. Although she knew she needed them for her sinus infections, the side effects (dizziness, nausea, diarrhea) often made the drugs worse than the illness.

When an herbalist told her to try goldenseal extract, her doctor was skeptical. “Look,” he said, “try the goldenseal, but keep my prescription handy. If you don’t feel better, you can always get it filled.”

Alexa took the goldenseal and, in a few days, her sinus infection was gone, without a single side effect. Now goldenseal is a part of her sinus first-aid kit. At the first sign of an infection, she starts taking it, along with the immune stimulator echinacea.

Though antibiotics are sometimes necessary, in the last few years Alexa has often been able to avoid them. “Those miserable side effects are history!” she happily reports.

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